Several years ago I came across the name Denafrips and just ignored it. Sure I'm interested in new manufacturers and products, but without a track record, I had a "wait and see" attitude. As members of the Audiophile Style community started using Denafrips products, I followed the developments a bit closer. When esteemed Audiophile Style writer Austinpop requested a review sample of the original Terminator in 2018, I took notice. It wasn't until late 2020, when a gentleman by the name of Alvin Chee contacted me about reviewing a significantly upgraded Terminator, that I decided to do my homework on everyone and everything involved.
People and reputations are incredibly important to me. I've turned down review samples of a few products, even though the products are seemingly very good, solely because of the people involved with a brand. Agree with me or not, I refuse to send members of this community into a situation where there's a good chance they'll have a very negative experience. In fact, I recently removed a review from this site, due to information I learned subsequent to its publishing, because I wouldn't be able to sleep at night knowing the review could lead readers into a subpar experience.
How does this relate to Denafrips and Alvin Chee? As Johnnie Cochran used to say to Judge Lance Ito while weaving a seemingly irrelevant story, I'll link it up. Alvin Chee's Vinshine Audio, based in Singapore, is the sole worldwide distributor of Denafrips products, and in essence the man behind the brand. Alvin researched Denafrips extensively, including verifying the engineering prowess of the company and making sure industry best practices were used, before agreeing to represent the brand. I've communicated with Alvin several times since November 2020. Some times I had questions about the product, other times I thought I'd found issues with the product (I didn't), and one time I asked for his opinion on achieving the best sound quality from the Terminator. These conversations provided a perfect setting for me to gauge Alvin as a person.
In every one of our conversations, Alvin was absolutely delightful. I could easily tell he was 100% genuine, cared deeply about the products he represents, and the satisfaction of everyone using these products. When I asked him about potential issues with the Terminator, he was open minded and didn't dismiss anything I said. The exact opposite of defensive. Shortly thereafter, Alvin directed me to a firmware update and provided additional information he'd gleaned from the engineers working on the product. Alvin was incredibly helpful and as they say, the buck stops with him. After these exchanges, I was confident that no matter what I thought about the Terminator, I could easily write about it and encourage members of this community to check it out for themselves.
Note: There is a US service center located in South Carolina for Denafrips products that need service.
After years of hesitation with Denafrips, I was ready to review the Terminator. This version of the Terminator is substantially different from what Austinpop reviewed in 2018. This version features a much more costly TCXO temperature controlled crystal oscillator, five times more costly (than the original electrolyte caps) EVOX MMK capacitors, WIMA capacitor tuning, and the newest BGA-DSP board. It's this DSP board that really got me excite about the Terminator.
The Denafrips DACs, as many readers know, enable the listener to disable internal oversampling via an NOS mode. This NOS mode, when combined with the new DSP board and external processing through an application such as HQPlayer, can take the terminator to incredibly high levels of performance. The new DSP board supports PCM up through 1,536 kHz and DSD up through DSD1024. Given that most content is 16 bit / 44.1, why would anyone ever need or want sample rates that high? The answers are, measurably better objective performance, and subjectively better sound quality. Getting one's music into the suitable format can be more challenging than tapping play on an Aurender server, but the end results are well worth the trouble.
But DSD1024, really? Oh yes. Even highly acclaimed brands such as EMM Labs believe in DSD1024, as it's the sample rate to which all music is converted inside all EMM DACs. Nearly every other DAC also oversamples to the highest rates of the internal chips because it's the right thing to do objectively and subjectively. Given the somewhat unique design of the Terminator, a True balanced 26BIT R2R + 6BIT DSD architecture, I asked HQPlayer creator Jussi Laako to help me find the "best" HQP settings for the DAC. Jussi offered some suggestions based on his knowledge of the Terminator's measurements and of course his savant level of DSP expertise.
I asked Jussi for a comment about software upsampling with NOS R2R ladder DACs as a whole. Here's what he said.
"There are several benefits of software upsampling with NOS R2R DACs. With digital sampling, there are always mirror images of the content repeating around every multiple of the output sampling rate, below and above. By performing upsampling these images are moved further up and apart, away from audio band to frequencies whey are are easier to remove by analog sections. In addition, using higher sampling rates allows use of noise shapers. Traditional problem of R2R ladders are related to low level linearity due to small errors in the resistor values. Using noise shaper designed for the purpose, within most linear range of the ladder, allows to correct these linearity problems while maintaining, or even improving, the available dynamic range in audio band.
Thus employing combined upsampling and noise shaping allows improved THD+N (SINAD) and IMD performance, and more accurate analog signal reconstruction, especially with low level signals. In addition, HQPlayer offers various very high performance digital filter options. Including apodizing ones that allow correction of errors typical in source content. So different filters can be chosen based on source content type/genre and personal preferences. HQPlayer also offers noise shapers designed to linearize D/A conversion sections.
DSD upsampling with discrete DSD DACs
In addition to digital filters discussed above, for DSD DACs HQPlayer also includes advanced high performance modulators that allow naturally good low level linearity, and avoid noise floor modulation, spurious- and idle-tones of lesser modulators."
I experimented with sampling all audio at DSD256 using HQP's EC modulator and was very happy with the results. However, what took the Terminator to a completely higher level was using HQP at 20 bit, 1,536 kHz, Sinc-S filter, and the LNS15 shaper (20 bits is where the DAC is most linear). I completely understand that to many readers this sounds way more than ridiculous. But, keep in mind the objective and subjective gains experienced and the fact that most DACs can't internally handle this, otherwise manufacturers would've implemented it yesterday. This type of oversampling can take significant horsepower, not to mention the knowledge required to create this level of digital signal processing isn't common.
Sending PCM at 1,536 kHz from a source to the Terminator isn't the easiest thing in the world, as I found out. After stumbling with the CAPS 20.1 endpoint running Windows 10 Pro, I tried Jussi Laako's HQP NAA image on the same machine and it worked flawlessly. Given that CAPS 20.1 is a DIY thing, I also wanted a commercial solution that could handle sample rates this high. After first struggling to get things working, I'm now using the Sonore signatureRendu, with fiber optic network connection, to feed the Terminator via USB. My initial problems were remedied by rebooting the Terminator and of course, this was the last thing I tried after troubleshooting everything else for days.
Putting the Denafrips Terminator into my system was a win-win for me. Looking closely at the bottom of the Terminator's product page, readers will see the following statement, "Footers seen on the photos are after-market. Actual footers shipped with the DAC are SS spike and spike shoe." Denafrips realizes that its supplied spike solution can be improved upon and even pictures the product with aftermarket footers. After using the spikes for a few days and thinking to myself that they were a bit underwhelming and not on par with the quality of the rest of the DAC, I put the new Wilson Audio Pedestal isolation feet under the Terminator. The Pedestals are the complete opposite from the included Denafrips spikes. The spikes offer zero isolation and are in my opinion a conduit for unwanted vibrations to enter the DAC unimpeded. Don't get me started on the included plastic/metal spike shoe.
The Pedestal isolation feet emerged from Wilson Audio’s Special Application Engineering (WASAE) division in 2020 and were developed using the extensive knowledge gained over the years from researching damping material for Wilson's world class loudspeakers and the ISOBase which was specifically designed for TuneTot installations on less than solid surfaces. Pedestals contain V Material and proprietary viscous damping material that eliminates vibration induced microphonics through absorption and turns vibrations into heat. Wilson also minimizes electronic interactions by using an austenitic stainless steel housing for the Pedestal isolation feet.
When I first received the Pedestals I thought I was out of luck because the supported weight is listed as up to 25 lbs and the Terminator weighs nearly 42 lbs. Fortunately, the supported weight of the Pedestals is per unit, so three of them support up to 75 lbs and more can be added commensurate with the isolated component's weight. Additionally, I was advised that Pedestals may work best if placed directly under the component chassis rather than under the feet. This is a case by case thing, and in the case of the Terminator I believe it's best to use the full surface area of the Pedestals by placing them directly under the chassis, not under the small spiked feet. With three Pedestals in place, the Terminator was setup for success and I was off to the musical races.
It's All About The Listening Experience
My Constellation Audio, Transparent Audio, Wilson Audio, and Sonore system was firing on all cylinders and ready for the Denafrips to deliver the sonic goods. In addition to listening to the Terminator through my main two channel system, I spent weeks running it through my RAAL-requisite SR1a headphone system. These true ribbon headphones enable the listener to hear even the smallest sonic flaws in an audio system. It's essentially like holding one's ear right next to a tweeter. Many readers have surely done this a time or two over the years and discovered their systems aren't totally noise-free. Anyway, I listened to the Terminator on both my systems in order to get a complete picture of it and the difference extremely high sample rate material has on the DAC.
This week I've been on a Rage Against The Machine binge. Rage is one of the most special bands eve put together. Listening to its music, one would swear the noises are coming from all kinds of different instruments and electronic tools of the trade. However, the band does it all with only vocals, guitar, bass, and drums. One more note about Rage, the band doesn't play traditionally accepted audiophile music. In fact I can metaphorically see people scoffing at my selections because judging equipment by listening to this "noise" just can't be possible. Well, I challenge anyone to sit in front of a great audio system, with an open mind, and deny the experience I'm about to transcribe.
Listening to the Audio Fidelity 2016 remaster of Rage Against The Machine's self titled debit album, I was amazed at the detail I heard through the Denafrips Terminator. As strange as this sounds, I heard terrific delicacy in Brad Wilk's cymbals throughout the opening track. Sure he smashes them on the heavier parts, but he works the hi-hat like a magician on much of the track and it's all wonderfully audible in both my main and headphone systems through the Terminator. Also incredibly detailed and full of texture is Brad Commerford's bass on Bombtrack. Listening through Tom Morello's flashier opening guitar work, reveals stunning detail that makes me think (imaginatively of course) that someone much more learned than me, could identify the bass strings being used. There is so much to be heard surrounding the notes and again, the great texture is something of which I wasn't previously aware.
The Terminator continued to impress me on Rage's sophomore album Evil Empire. I played the Audio Fidelity DSD version, converted to 20 bit / 1,536 kHz PCM with HQPlayer. Again, I didn't have to get very far into the first track to notice the great detail on what many would call noise and yelling. The track, People of the Sun, opens with Tom Morello giving his guitar strings a creative workout. Through the Terminator I heard the leading edge of these bending notes, like I don't previously remember hearing. A true sonic delight is available at 2:04 into the track when the band stops and only Morello's guitar mastery can be heard. The leading edge is again pleasingly audible as he slides into the rest of each note. There is a little something extra here versus the opening of the track when he plays nearly identical notes. It's really something one has to hear to understand what I'm blathering on about. Just understand, there is a ton of information on this album, and it's all audible through a good system and a DAC such as the Denafrips Terminator.
OK one last note about Rage. On the track Bulls in Parade, at about 2:59 into the track, it's possible to hear Tim Commerford's bass amp being brought back into the mix. Certainly not something that makes the track magical, but something that brings the listener closer to the recording studio and the music. I'd never heard this previously, even though I've listened to this album countless times since its release in April of 1996.
Switching gears to one of my absolute favorite pieces of music that couldn't be further from Rage Against The Machine, I listened to David Oistrakh's Bruch: Scottish Fantasy released by the late Winston Ma's label Lasting Impression Music. This album has a dynamic range sore of 19! Talk about textures and mastery of the violin, this album is a true masterpiece. Although it was recorded at 15 IPS on half inch magnetic tape in 1962, the album benefits, just like all music I played through the Terminator in NOS mode, from HQPlayer's digital processing and extremely high rate PCM delivery to the DAC.
I listened to Scottish Fantasy Op. 46 several times on both my main Wilson Alexia Series 2 system and my RAAl-requisite SR1a system, and heard every once of what's on that 1962 tape as well as felt all the emotion emanate from Oistrakh's 1702 Conte di Fontana Stradivarius. Taking the Terminator to 11 through highly refined use of HQP's DSP enabled me to enjoy this music tremendously and on a level I didn't thing possible with a Denafrips DAC.
At the other end of the spectrum, I listened to some of Bill Schnee's Bravura Records recordings. These were done live to two track digital at 24/192. It's the modern day version of his famous Sheffield Labs direct to disc albums. I always hesitate to use these tracks as demo material solely because nobody knows what I'm describing. This material is still unavailable on the commercial market. But, nonetheless I recently interviewed Bill on the Audiophile Style podcast and felt the need to use his most masterful work to date during this review.
Bill is known for the Schnee drum sound, among other things, and it's readily apparent why on the first track called Clap Hands. Listening through the Terminator I felt like I was siting in Schnee Studio on Lankershim in North Hollywood. The drums sound unlike almost anything available on commercially available music. A large and realistic sound with texture and sub-texture and a palpable sense for the stick hitting the drum head on the appropriate beat. Granted this material can sound great on many systems because the source is the most important part of playback, but through the Denafrips Terminator in my system I can assure people the sound is absolutely stellar.
Outside of my own experience with the Terminator, I respect the opinions of friends who've experienced other Denafrips DAC with similar enjoyment as success. Readers should note that Denafrips also offers its flagship DAC the Terminator Plus that could take the musical experience even higher, and a brand new version of the Terminator called the Terminator II. The Terminator II isolates the DSP and R2R boards totally, has redesigned power supply, and features super capacitors among other things. As I type this, the Terminator II is on a fedEx airplane, on the way to my house for the first major publication review. I look forward to hearing how far I can take the Terminator II using the same system configurations used with the Terminator.
The Denafrips Terminator DAC and its global distributor Alvin Chee of Vinshine Audio so impressed me, that I have nothing but accolades to lay on both the product and Alvin as a person. I wish I would've jumped on the Denafrips bandwagon sooner, but at the same time I'm happy I waited until the Terminator was upgraded with its new DSP board that accepts extremely high sample rates. There's nothing this DAC doesn't support. Whether it's PCM at 1,536 kHz or DSD1024 in either 44.1 kHz or 48 kHz families, the Terminator with new DSP board accepts it. It's the use of external DSP, through Jussi Laako's HQPlayer, that really elevates the Terminator's performance to another level, both objectively and subjectively. My goal was to see how far I cold take the terminator's performance, and I believe I have it sounding as good or better than it has ever sounded in any system. If readers are interested in maximizing this DAC with external DSP, advanced isolation feet, and surrounding it with equally good components, they will be rewarded with terrific musical experiences.
- Denafrips Terminator DAC ($4,500)
- Denafrips Terminator Product Page
- Denafrips Terminator User Manual
- Denafrips Support Page
- Wilson Audio Pedestal ($2,225 set of three)
- Wilson Audio Pedestal Product Page
- Wilson Audio Pedestal Press Release
- Source: QNAP TVS-872XT, Aurender N20, CAPS 20
- DAC: EMM Labs DV2, Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC RS3, Schiit Audio Yggdrasil, Meitner Audio MA3
- D-to-D Converter: Sonore Signature Rendu SE (optical), APL HiFi DNP-SR, CAPS 20.1
- Amplifiers: Constellation Audio Mono 1.0 / Monoblock Power Amplifiers, Constellation Audio Inspiration Integrated, Parasound HINT 6
- Preamplifier: Constellation Audio PreAmp 1.0
- Loudspeakers: Wilson Audio Alexia Series 2
- Headphones: RAAL-requisite SR1a
- Digital Signal Processing: Accurate Sound, HQPlayer
- Remote Control Software: Roon Remote, JRemote, Aurender Conductor
- Remote Control Hardware: iPad Pro
- Playback Software: Roon, JRiver,
- Network Attached Storage (NAS): QNAP TVS-872XT
- Audio Cables: Transparent Audio Reference Interconnects (XLR & RCA), Transparent Audio Reference 110-Ohm AES/EBU Digital Link, Transparent Audio Reference Speaker Cables, Gotham GAC-4/1 ultraPro Balanced XLR Audio Cable (40')
- USB Cables: Transparent Audio Premium USB Cable
- Power Cables: Transparent Audio Reference Power Cables
- Power Isolation: one 4kVA and one 5 kVA 512 Engineering Symmetrical Power Source
- Ethernet Cables: Transparent Audio High Performance Ethernet Cables
- Fiber optic Cables: Single Mode OS1-9/125um (LC to LC)
- Acoustic Room Treatments: Vicoustic Diffusion and Absorption, ATS Acoustics Bass Traps
- Network: Ubiquiti UniFi Switch 24, Ubiquiti UniFi Switch 8-150W x2, Ubiquiti UniFi Switch 16 XG, Ubiquiti UniFi Security Gateway Pro 4, Ubiquiti UniFi AP HD x2, UniFi FlexHD AP, Ubiquiti FC-SM-300 Fiber Optic Cable x2, UF-SM-1G-S Fiber Optic Modules x6, Commercial Grade Fiber Optic Patch Cables, Calix 716GE-I Optical Network Terminal, CenturyLink 1 Gbps download / upload
This graph shows the frequency response of my room before (top) and after (bottom) tuning by Mitch Barnett of Accurate Sound. The standard used for this curve is EBU 3276. This tuning can be used with Roon, JRiver, and other apps that accept convolution filters. When evaluating equipment I use my system with and without this tuning engaged. The signal processing takes place in the digital domain before the audio reaches the DAC, thus enabling me to evaluate the components under review without anything changing the signal further downstream.